HWANGE ANNUAL GAME COUNT – 2012
by John and Judy Brebner
(3rd October 2012)
The sun, the colour of a crimson breasted shrike’s crimson breast, was struggling up through the smoke and dust induced haze, as a tiny Cessna six seater plane, rumbled down the rutted Main Camp runway, lifting off towards the rising orb.
Pat Cox at the joystick, with four passengers, was off on the next leg of the pre-game count fly over to check on the status of the available water in the park.
This particular morning’s sortie was to inspect the pans along the eastern and southern part of Main Camp, inspecting water along the way – past the Kennedys, the Hide and Somalisa concessions, Ngweshla and the whole of the Wildnerness concession, before going on down to the southern most tip of the park on the Botswana border, where there had been a report on suspected elephant poaching.
Flying back up from there, over miles of waterless nothing, it was apparent that very little rain had fallen during the past season down in the southern end of the park. The inspection took in the out of the way pans as well as the Mangas and Jambile. The Wilderness concessions appeared to have plenty of water which is great to see and thanks must go to them for keeping their waterholes in a good state. While there was some water in some of the other pans, it certainly was not plentiful.
Even some pans which were seen from the air with water, were found to be dry a couple of days later when inspected on the ground due to various problems with the pumping.
It is a harsh time of the year for the animals and for the people trying to keep up with the pumping. Gary Cantle has to be commended for the tremendous work he has been doing, not only keeping a check on the pans that WEZ and Friends of Hwange try to keep going, but also for the constant assistance he renders to National Parks.
Once again, the Main Camp water crew, as elsewhere in the park, are seriously hindered by the lack of working vehicles so there is often no transport available for them to attend to breakdowns, refueling engines with diesel and oil or rationing pump attendants timeously. It’s a never ending headache and frustration for all those involved.
The other pre-game count flights went off without hitch and Sinamatella and Robins appeared to have a little more water than expected along their river systems, although how long it will last is anyone’s guess.
The next few days were spent travelling around the Main Camp area, catching up with friends seen annually during the count and just enjoying being out in the Park despite the terrible dryness and the veld taking on its dry season lunar landscape look. The acacia erioloba were all out in their summer splendour and the bright green leaves on these beautiful elderly monoliths stuck out through the otherwise greyness of the dry bush.
Here and there, the lilac haze of lonchocarpus nelsii would also alleviate the drab brown and grey. It was very pleasing to see so many animals around the Nyamandhlovu/Dom area close to Main Camp, all seemingly very calm and peaceful, despite the daily sightings of a large pride of lion which seem to have been resident in the area for some weeks now, and which most people staying in camp got to see at some stage.
The elephant herds have fragmented into smaller groups and, as is usual for this time of the year, appear to have a sad look about them as they plod wearily up to what little water there may be, to try and get some of the precious liquid before starting on the long march once again in search of food. An amazingly large number of buffalo were seen from the air during the pre-game count flights and several counters reported large numbers seen during the count. The buffalo, too, come down to the water, heads hanging low and are foot weary from their long treks. The giraffe seem to be quite happy now that the new shoots and leaves are appearing on the trees and several folk commented on the many kudu seen round and about on drives. Several sightings of cheetah were reported, which is fantastic with one game count team while out on a drive, coming across a cheetah mother with three youngsters that they managed to watch for almost fifteen minutes!
One evening, just as the park gates were closing, a pack of seven wild dog unsuccessfully tried to find dinner on the periphery of the Main Camp lodges, sending the impala that sneak in to graze on the little bits of lawn, hurtling through camp. A hot day was spent going around with Gary, checking and refuelling various engines as well as fixing punctures on his vehicle which plague him constantly.
Then it was on up to Masuma for the weekend of the count. On the way up, we stopped in at the various pans to see how they were faring and visited Nehimba to get permission to go through and have a look at Granny’s pan – a new pan that they have begun to pump and develop. The staff at Nehimba were preparing for a large BBC film crew that were starting to arrive on the Friday, coming to film the elephant digging in the seeps and hopefully capturing some footage of Goose – the rather crazy lion which inhabits that area. Its great to see the development there and other boreholes have been established which should help the water situation up that end of the park. Apparently, Camp Hwange, one of the newer concessions opposite Shumba has also had some successful boreholes put down and all this should greatly assist Parks.
The water in the pan at Masuma was pretty abysmal and we were dismayed to see that pumping was not in progress due to the lack of diesel. It was established that there was 20 litres still available and the pump attendants had radioed for more to be sent but if the truth be known, the pump attendants, with no weapons, were too nervous to walk over to the engine, which is some distance from the pan. This was not surprising, however, when lion called all round camp every night and a pride of nine were seen sitting atop the “dam” wall just before sun up the following morning. Apparently, this pride had been in the area for the past three months or so. The pump attendants were taken down to the engine which was duly started again but by then elephant had begun arriving in their numbers so there was very little chance of any water getting into the pan as it was vacuumed up the second it gushed out the end of the pipe! Much jostling, shoving and pushing ensued with the odd grumpy bellow emitting from the middle of the melee while some of the other pachyderms stood quietly by, hoping for a chance to get a trunkful.
Fortunately, more fuel was sent through so there was sufficient to keep the engine running for the duration and during a quiet period the following morning, some water did run into the diminishing pan. A strong wind blew up the night before the count which was pretty disturbing with the flapping of tents and great gusts of dust everywhere and was still blowing quite strongly the following morning, making some of the game, coming down to water, rather skittish. It was great to have the breeze later on, keeping the temperature down a bit and this also helped to blow some of the haze away and so improving the light during the count overnight. It was a fairly busy count with the usual quiet patch in the very early hours of the morning. The setting moon was a stunning sight as the last couple of elephant went on their way. There was a never ending stream of animals coming down to the pan during the next few hours – great herds of impala, shy and hesitant kudu, waterbuck, buffalo, warthog, flocks and flocks of trilling helmeted guineafowl gathering in a great grey, spotty crowd at the fresh water stream now spilling down into the pan, a couple of troops of baboon which caused a ruckus as some youngster got noisily and rather cruelly dealt with and the pair of gorgeous saddlebilled storks along with the resident hamerkop fossicked around in the mud, catching frogs for breakfast. A couple of squacco herons flew in from goodness knows where to spend the day and birding, generally, was great.
As well as the counters occupying the available Parks accommodation, the various lodges and safari camps appeared to have a good occupancy and loads of tourist vehicles packed with guests were about in the park. The camp sites were busy too with many South African and Botswana campers, a couple of overlander groups and the usual school groups staying at the wild dog centre. Some folk are very quick to criticise and while we are all aware of the shortcomings, it would be far better to focus on the “good” things that have been done, rather than all that is not right. We do feel that Parks management, generally, has improved and the people on the ground are trying to keep things ticking over under very difficult circumstances.
Once again, we should like to thank all the sponsors and donors that do make a difference and would like to congratulate Gary who is a worthy recipient of the Ted Hyson trophy this year which is a WEZ award to someone who has done a great amount of work for the society over the year. So well done, Gary. Thanks must also go to Stephen and Sue Long at Sinamatella who also put in an amazing amount of work, quietly and as efficiently as they are able. Thank you to all who have expressed interest in our periodic news updates and once again, we ask that if you DO NOT wish to receive them, please let us know. We have also had several people complain that they have stopped receiving our newsletters but it usually turns out that they have changed email addresses and have omitted to let us know. So please bear this in mind when changing yours!
Until next time, the best way you can support the park is to visit it.
“Only if we understand, can we care, only if we care will we help, only if we help shall they be saved”